Before Karen Barrett Baral came to Dublin from her Sydney home, her property development credentials were firmly intact. Her business in Australia is currently completing a €30 million shopping centre development, while she focuses on her real passion – residential refurbishment.
Located opposite The Four Seasons Hotel (now the Intercontinental Dublin), number 76 Merrion Road is Barrett Baral's 17th restoration, but her first in Ireland. It's significant because despite owning other properties in London, New York and Barcelona, this is where she has chosen to settle with her children. Born around the corner in Ballsbridge, Barrett Baral lived here until she was 14 before moving to Australia with her family.
Now she’s back and has just completed a top-to-toe refurbishment on this imposing Edwardian that was in use as offices until it was sold in 2013 for around €1.5 million. In just five months the 385sq m (3,855sq ft) house has been dramatically transformed into an ultra-modern energy-efficient home that feels more New York and London than a typical Dublin redbrick upgrade. It’s for sale through Sherry FitzGerald for €2.75 million.
The house was stripped back completely, and about €1 million was spent on the project, employing expertise from overseas teams that Barrett Baral had previously worked with. Her approach to refurbishment is unsentimental, stemming from her commercial project management experience in Australia where “if you go over budget, you go over by millions”.
Obsession with planning
The rapid five-month turnaround comes down to Barrett Baral’s near obsession with planning: “I’m a nightmare to work with on a job, like a barking dog. From the outset I knew exactly what I was going to spend, and I priced every door handle, every light. As a consequence every project comes in on budget.”
That’s not to say she didn’t come up against it in trying to achieve her goals. Finding someone to install an 8 metre-long kitchen proved challenging, with it variously being dismissed as “unworkable” and “a folly”, she says. The extended island running almost the length of the kitchen is a striking departure from usual designs, but somehow it works. The leathered granite counter top softens the effect, and the Italian Snaidero kitchen secrets kitchen things behind the slickest of storage solutions. A row of slim rod pendant lights by Davide Groppi nicely offsets the three striking bespoke Crittel steel doors leading out to the 100ft garden.
The upstairs bathrooms have been painstakingly tiled in octagonal marble mosaic, while a solid marble bath featured previously on the cover of World of Interiors magazine took 10 men to haul upstairs.
In fact each room resembles a fresh page of an interiors magazine, and though there are just four bedrooms, a lavish dressing room across from the master bedroom could also be a double bedroom. Barrett Baral takes a minimalist approach to décor, but the furnishings she uses are from the highest shelf – an Eero Saarinen dining table, a Perspex block chandelier from 20th Century Lighting in New York, original Edwardian fireplaces in the upstairs receptions from Chesneys of London, photography by Australian art photographer Bill Henson, from his Design Opera Project.
Elegant Edwardian design
A lot of what’s special about number 76’s refurb is unseen. Extensive use of wood-panelling on the upper floors plays on the elegance of the Edwardian design, but it also cleverly incorporates high end thermal and sound insulation. The sash windows have been restored and double glazed. The Sika resin finish on the kitchen floor facilitates the underfloor heating – a more practical alternative to the polished cement and heavy tiles often laid in ground floor extensions. “To get a property up and out of the ground, the build costs are incredible. But if you can buy carefully, and make the design plan work within the framework you have it’s a much better and more cost-effective approach. People really underestimate building costs and I think that’s why modern builds aren’t always done very well here.”
She’s not a great fan of the very Irish preoccupation with “glass box” living-dining extensions. “A pet hate of mine is when people gouge out the backs of beautiful buildings and stick in a cold glass extension. Then they wonder why the house is so hard to heat or why they have issues with damp on the first floor. It’s because they’re putting all their energy into heating an add-on glass box. It’s like an open wound on a building and in 15 years time that very modern box is going to look out of date.”
Barret Baral’s next project promises to be entirely different – a 1,700sq m property in Enniskerry that she intends to transform into one of Ireland’s first true “super homes”. Though they are common in metropolitan cities around the world, they haven’t quite caught on in Ireland. Location tends to be key, either in an exclusive celebrity belt, or with lots of privacy and an enviable address. A gym, home cinema, high-end kitchen and further entertaining facilities usually come as standard. This will be a little closer to the home Barret Baral left in the exclusive Darlington area of Sydney, where movie director Baz Luhrmann was their neighbour.
Are there plans to buy more property in Ireland? Beyond their next house, Barrett Baral isn’t sure. “Real estate here is such a slow-moving machine. It’s frustrating. We have made cash offers on large-scale properties to discover that they sold for considerably less afterwards. It all smacks of the Old Boys’ Club a bit.”
Her frustrations also extend to prejudices she has encountered about being a woman property developer: "The amount of times I have been asked is my husband going to come along to a view a property with me, it's hilarious." Her most positive experiences so far have been with women working in the industry – Helen Kilmartin from Minima and Lisa Jones of Porter & Jones kitchens. "You do see them breaking down those barriers, but it's a challenge."
Finding a buyer with €2.75million to spend on a property on a busy thoroughfare, with a north-facing garden, could prove a challenge, but Barrett Baral is confident of her market. “We have had some very strong interest. Those viewing really like the international feel of the house, it’s not your typical Edwardian.”